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FINANCIAL WATCHDOG ATTACKS HANDLING OF DISASTER


11:00 - 23 November 2004

The Government's handling of the foot and mouth disaster has been heavily criticised in a new report by Europe's financial watchdog. In a 100-page report on the 2001 crisis the European Court of Auditors has raised concerns about the parlous state of contingency plans and the slow way in which the UK Government reacted to the outbreak.

It also criticises the European Commission for failing to enforce EU rules and questions whether the lessons of the disaster have been learned. It says contingency plans have improved, but there is a risk that implementation of these measures "could once again be insufficient to contain a future epidemic".

The report says the EU was warned in 1998 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation that it was wide open to the risk of a devastating animal disease epidemic, but contingency plans in the UK and elsewhere in the EU were not updated.

It said: "The plans had not provided adequately for the worst scenario, made no provision for stepping up the resources to counteract it and did not provide necessary administrative and financial organisation."

In the UK the plans had not been shown to farmers and were incapable of dealing with an outbreak on the scale experienced, and failed to say when vaccination should be used. The report says the three-day delay in banning livestock movements in the UK might have doubled the eventual size of the outbreak.

It criticises the slow way in which the Government responded to the outbreak at first - particularly the failure to slaughter infected animals, which were often left alive for weeks, and the failure to dispose of carcasses which littered the Westcountry countryside for weeks.

The report says that such delays were "unacceptable" when dealing with a highly contagious disease and reveals that European veterinary inspections revealed "gaps" in checks made by member states on treating waste used for animal feed.


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600M COST OF FOOT AND MOUTH BLUNDERS

British taxpayers have been "fined" 600 million by the European Commission over the Government's disastrous handling of the 2001 foot and mouth crisis.

The WMN can reveal that the EC has decided to disqualify almost two-thirds of the UK's claim for dealing with the crisis because of concerns about the way the outbreak was handled.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) last night confirmed that its claim for 948 million from the EC would result in a payment of just 349 million. This equates to a loss of almost exactly 600 million - the equivalent of 10 for every man, woman and child in the country.

Commission concerns are thought to centre on the Government's failure to control soaring costs of the outbreak. A European Court of Auditors report criticises the UK for its slow reaction to the outbreak, and the Commission is believed to have concerns about the scale of the controversial contiguous cull, which led to the slaughter of millions of healthy animals.

Last night there were calls in the Westcountry for a formal apology from the Government, with claims that it was more concerned with clearing the way for the General Election than making the right decisions on the epidemic.

A Defra spokesman would not comment on whether the settlement was a "satisfactory" result for British taxpayers, but insisted it would have been even worse if ministers had not intervened to make the Government's case.

South West Euro MP Neil Parish, Conservative agriculture spokesman in the European Parliament, last night called on Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett to make a formal Commons apology for the debacle.

Mr Parish, who helped instigate the European Parliament's own inquiry into the events of 2001, said: "It is no surprise to hear that the EC believes the outbreak was totally mismanaged by the Government - it is what people in the countryside have known all along. Unfortunately we are all now going to have to foot the bill for the Government's mistakes.

"The very least we should expect is a formal apology from Mrs Beckett and an acknowledgement that the Government got it wrong. We seem to have a culture where no one will accept the blame for anything."

It would be "totally unacceptable" if the Treasury sought to claw back the money lost through the Government's failings by penalising the farming industry and rural community.

Anthony Gibson, director of the National Farmers' Union in the South West, said many farmers believed the contiguous cull had had more to do with "clearing the decks" for the 2001 election than targeted disease control.

He said: "There is a temptation to indulge in schadenfreude, but it is potentially quite damaging for all of us, because the Government will no doubt look to make economies elsewhere to make good the 600 million lost through its ineptitude, particularly in adopting the contiguous cull policy.

"The contiguous cull was not justified scientifically - it was the random slaughter of huge numbers of animals, which by its very nature sent costs spiralling out of control. It was all about holding the General Election on time - the word went out to the number crunchers to get it under control, regardless of cost or consequence.

"They came up with this policy that went way beyond what was necessary and it was imposed ruthlessly. Now we are all getting the bill for it."

Under EU rules member states can normally expect to receive 60 per cent of eligible costs for controlling an outbreak of animal disease. The UK submitted a claim for 948 million - exactly 60 per cent of its eligible costs of 1.6 billion. So far the EC has paid the UK 280 million and Defra last night said it now expected just 69 million extra in final settlement of the claim.

A Defra spokesman insisted that the EC originally planned to pay even less. "You also have to bear in mind that the cost to UK and EU taxpayers would have been much higher if we had not achieved eradication of the disease in the way we did," he said.

A European Commission spokesman confirmed last night that the final payment would be "considerably less" than the amount claimed.